29 January 2014

American Psycho - Almeida Theatre, Tuesday 28th January 2014


Living the high life in 1980s Manhattan, Patrick Bateman has it all – looks, money, style and status.  He and his entourage buy the most expensive designer clothes, eat at the most exclusive restaurants and party at the hottest clubs.  But privately, Patrick indulges in another kind of transgression. And people - including those closest to him - keep disappearing.

Patrick Bateman – Matt Smith
Paul Owen – Ben Aldridge
Craig McDermott – Charlie Anson
Jean – Cassandra Compton
Courtney – Katie Brayben
Evelyn – Susannah Fielding
Detective Kimball – Simon Gregor

Creative team:
Director – Rupert Goold
Set – Es Devlin
Costume – Katrina Lindsay
Choreography – Lynne Page

Well, what an odd choice of material for a musical.  I enjoyed both the film and the original book, and was really interested to see how this would be turned into a stage production.  The answer was that technology has been thrown at it in buckets – and tonight that technology proved unreliable.  10 minutes in, just as the threads of the spell were being woven and starting to come together, I noticed something had gone wrong with the lighting.  The cast carried on – and then a techie appeared from nowhere and announced that the performance would have to be suspended until it had been sorted.  And then Matt Smith (who should know a lot better) did something completely unbelievable and totally unprofessional.  He “broke the fourth wall” and addressed the audience direct.  And what is worse, he cracked a couple of jokes and started clowning around.  This amused the audience – but it broke the spell completely.  The threads fell apart, reality entered in and it gave the audience permission to laugh.  And then, when the show resumed, Mr. Smith carried on with the clowning, interspersing his dialogue with a couple of comments about déjà vu, giving the audience permission to carry on laughing.  And that is what they carried on doing, almost to the very end of the show, interpreting the show as some kind of comedy, which completely destroyed both the spell and any tension.  I got irritated with the laughter, and with the audience, and ultimately with the show itself.  What the cast should have done is just left the stage quietly, and then returned after the tech problems were sorted out and carried on weaving the spell.  But at least two of them took the opportunity to clown about.  It was Unprofessional with a capital U.

The script of this is very, very strange. It’s a psychological thriller, but there are too many lines which could be interpreted as funny. And when your audience has been given permission to laugh (by your clowning), they will laugh at them, and turn your thriller into something humorous.  And then they will actively look for other things to laugh at, and laugh at them, and unfortunately there are too many things in the production that could be seen (by someone looking for something to laugh at) as funny; someone doing a silly accent, someone wearing a funny wig, four people standing with their heads through those boards you used to see at the seaside when having a comedy photograph taken, even (and these are very cheap laughs indeed) someone camping it up when playing a gay character.  I did wonder why the writer thought it would be appropriate to make this a musical, when it would have functioned rather better as a straightforward play with music.  It certainly would have increased the tension, and made the production feel somewhat less superficial.  It is certainly far more superficial than the book or the film – there is an empty kind of gloss about it all.  Now, this could be a very clever aspect – the lives of most of the characters are very, very glossy and very, very empty.  But I don’t think that this is how the production was planned. 

There is certainly not a great deal of blood.  The first death doesn’t come until almost at the interval. The tension has taken just that bit too long to build to a decent level; until then, we’ve just been watching a musical play about some fairly repellent people being repellent to other people.  In fact, there really isn’t a decent “Silence” until 15 – 20 minutes from the end.  Here I have to digress for a second and explain the term “Silence” (note, capital S).  I’ve used the term before but not for a long while, and new readers may welcome some explanation.  Silence is the absence of noise, but a “Silence” is one of those moments in the theatre when the entire audience is holding its collective breath and concentrating really, really hard – nobody coughs, nobody fidgets in their seat, all eyes are on the stage and everyone is more or less holding their breath, because there’s something deeply dramatic going on and everyone is focussing totally.  I’ve defined “Silence” in the past as “the noise that black velvet makes”.  And we get a “Silence” in the scene where Bateman takes his secretary Jean back to his apartment – and none of the audience are completely sure what is going to happen.  Is he going to murder her with the nail gun or will she get away?  But its too late – there should have been more of them, and they should have come earlier.  The tension has taken too long to build up, and much of it has been dissipated by the jolly musical numbers and the opportunities for humour. 

I also think that the show is too overladen with technology for its own good; the slightly thin story gets rather overwhelmed by it.  Not that the technology isn’t wonderful in its own right – it certainly adds an extra dimension.  But does the script warrant it, or even need it?  With horror, simpler is usually better.  You have only got to go see a performance of The Woman in Black to prove this – you’ll be scared out of your wits by a production that uses only one set and some odds and ends of furniture.  Your imagination will provide the rest.  The film version of American Psycho is so bloody, so visceral, that the stage cannot compete with it.  It attempts to become a psychological drama – and in the main fails badly. 

Not that there isn’t a great performance going on here.  Matt Smith really shows his craft– you need considerable talent to pull off the role of Patrick Bateman and in less competent hands the role would be a write-off and just wouldn’t work.  The problem is that most people aren’t here to see Matt Smith’s talent – they’re here to see the man who played Doctor Who, and probably wouldn’t recognise decent stagecraft if it came and sat on their face.  In the second act, Smith gives a performance that is increasingly spellbinding and is totally riveting by the final scene.  But the rest of the cast are hampered by the comedy, the role of Detective Kimball is under-written and Cassandra Compton’s attempts at winsomeness are scuppered by her inconsistent accent and insistence on using a voice that even Minnie Mouse would find irritating.

Despite the stunning central performance, despite the incredible technical aspects of the show, I have to give it a resounding “meh”.  

What the critics said: 






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